"A Broken Heart" (season 1, episode 4; originally aired 10/21/2001)
Sydney Bristow already had a complicated life before learning about SD-6’s true nature. Leading a double life hidden from her friends was difficult enough. But layering in her new work with the CIA just adds that much more pressure to her already stressful life. After going into the deep end of the mythological pool with “Parity,” Alias swims quickly back to the more personal, emotional side of things in this episode. Lord knows Sydney would probably have drowned otherwise.
That she’s so distraught so early might come as a shock. I don’t think it registered as such the first time around, but I also think that the way in which television was paced a decade ago was simply much different than it is paced today. The notion of a slow burn, multi-year mythology might have entered the collective pop culture consciousness with 1990’s shows like The X Files, but they didn’t really proliferate across the television landscape until after Lost. Lost came onto the scene in 2004, a few months before Alias’ fourth season debuted. We’re a long way from that point in the show in these reviews, but trust me when I say that even by that point, things didn’t move as fast as they do at this stage of the narrative game.
Personally, I think that’s a shame. There’s something about the go-for-broke nature of these early episodes of Alias that show the value in deploying story when it seems right, not when it’s simply sweeps week. Syd’s mental breakdown is the stuff of winter cliffhangers now, not the freakin’ fourth episode of a show’s run. To some watching now, Syd’s scene with Vaughn on the pier might seem like too much, too soon. But Alias has gone to great pains in its post-pilot episodes to demonstrate how every moment in Sydney’s life could be her last. Whether it’s facing down a bodyguard that once broke her arm or keeping the “Kate Jones” luggage tag from Will’s wandering eyes, every single second is a chance for things to go horribly wrong for her.
There’s never a moment for her to relax, and thus, it feels right that she’s not some Woman of Steel that’s impervious to the evil around her. But she’s also unsure of what the core of her character is, being shuffled through so many iterations on a daily basis. Putting on her latest disguise while trying to talk Francie off the ledge about Charlie is, in some ways, the direct blueprint for so much of Chuck: here we have our hero talking about relatively trivial things mid-mission with someone unaware of their CIA ties, then ironically “spying” with said friend later on. I’m not sure this ever truly works in either show, but I get why both shows employ it. Both Sydney Bristow and Chuck Bartowski need that human connection, even while the attempts to straddle both worlds often tears them apart.
The nexus of these two impulses lies, naturally, in the figure of Jack. Until now, Spy Daddy’s been a hard-ass ball of concentrated awesome, but even he has a few cracks in his seemingly impenetrable façade. Lost fans might have gotten some flashbacks to Season 3’s “Further Instructions” as Jack went down the dream escalator during McCullough’s psych evaluation. (That, or Alias fans got some “A Broken Heart” flashbacks when Locke went into his sweat lodge.) The show is juggling a lot of balls at this point, of the red and non-red varieties. But the issue of Jack’s guilt over Sydney finding out about the true fate of her mother is an important ball for the show to keep in the air. We already learned in “Parity” that Jack had lied to Syd about her. But now, we understand he lives in mortal terror of her discovering that lie.
With all the broken hearts in this episode (Syd, Jack, Francie, and Will, after an ill-advised attempt to recreate his drunken kiss with Syd), it only makes sense that the spy plot of the week ends with a bomb attached to a pacemaker. Alias never stays too long in any one particular location, which gives its missions a sense of momentum often lost in subsequent spy shows. Both the aforementioned Chuck and even Nikita tend to stage “learn about the mission at home, go to mission for three acts, regroup at home over musical montage”. Alias tends to have shorter missions that flow into each other: Berlin flows into Spain flows into Casablanca into Sao Paulo. It was probably a nightmare scenario for the show’s production designers, but by and large the show sells the illusion of world travel extremely well. (The marketplace in Casablanca is breathtakingly lit.)
The true effects of Patel’s heart bomb won’t truly play out until the next hour. But the pain in the hearts of our core characters will linger long afterwards.
"Doppelgänger " (season 1, episode 5; originally aired 10/28/2001)
Back in “So It Begins,” Alias used Vaughn’s expansive map of SD-6’s influence to give both Syd and the audience a sense of the scope involved to truly take down Sloane and Company. “Doppelgänger” emphasizes what “A Broken Heart” reinforced: that ultimately taking down The Alliance not only would be slow, but had a degree of difficulty so high that any single mistake could undo the entire operation. Usually mistakes come in the form of incomplete intelligence. Sometimes you don’t know the existence of a factory in Badenweiler. Sometimes you don’t know the true nature of a Social Security number. Sometimes you don’t know your partner has a secondary detonator. If knowledge is power, then sometimes the lack of it can be fatal.
As such, it’s fitting that this is the first hour that features a cliffhanger that represents an emotional moment, not simply an exciting stopgap in the action. The last three hours have featured final moments that interrupted an exciting sequence, but here all we have is fire shining in Syd’s horrified eyes. She might have maintained her double agent status, and Paul Kelvin might have only escaped with a broken arm, but the CIA field agents that died in the factory explosion are yet more casualties in a war Sydney may be waging but barely understands. What’s personal for her isn’t personal for Vaughn’s buddies inside of that blast, and that makes her guilt all the more potent.
Syd talks again in this hour of the difficulty with which she masks her true feelings towards Sloane in their daily briefings. That’s an intense struggle, to be sure, but it’s one she can ultimately manage since it’s specific and self-contained anger. She can put aside her desire for revenge in order to obtain a greater, more permanent justice for Danny’s death. But she has a much more difficult time assessing the collateral damage that her actions (augmented by the CIA’s actions, which are equally sincere though not as emotionally specific) cause. “Doppelgänger” is rife with people that consciously or inadvertently get caught up between a Syd and a Sloane place this week: Jeroen Schiller, Kelvin, Dixon, and Will are all caught up to some extent in Syd’s decision to tell Danny about her spy status.
The show never shies away from the weekly assets that come under duress from the show’s missions. Oftentimes, these people have either signed up for the rollercoaster or have made decisions that leave them no other choice. But Dixon and Will (and Marshall, to an extent, though he’s still way on the sidelines at this point) both fashion themselves as protagonists in a story that they don’t yet realize is fabricated. I’m always fascinated by thinking about certain shows, and how they might be better if they focused on a secondary/tertiary character as opposed to the one the show chooses to highlight. (Case in point: Covert Affairs, an Alias knockoff that apparently never actually watched a damn episode of Alias, might actually be a fairly interesting show if it were about Auggie, not Annie.) But I’m also equally fascinated to watch characters that have no idea they aren’t actually the most important person in the narrative being spun.
Dixon fashions himself the sturdy, non-flashy agent of an elite, noble government spy agency. He doesn’t think he’s James Bond, but he takes pride in a job well done. He acts as both partner and semi-father figure to a fellow agent that he worries may be in danger in light of her ex-fiancé’s death. He doesn’t picture himself as a hero per se, but definitely has trouble seeing himself as a pawn being used by other people. As for Will: we see in this hour how he can actually be a powerful player in the world of this show once his bullshit detector starts moving from green to red. Until this point, the evidence has been circumstantial at best, easily dismissed by someone like Francie. But a borrowed SSN from a dead woman? You can see his eyes harden in his interview with “Kate Jones,” turning him from a semi-skeevy dork willing to sell out his assistant’s looks for a scoop to a man that just might make some in-roads into the spy world after all.
As for the spy world stuff this week, pretty good stuff here, if not the epic awesome of the past few weeks. Watching Dixon knock out Patel was hysterical, mostly for his “I am SO sorry!” apology pre-punch. And the subsequent ambulance chase is the type of sequence that Grand Theft Auto dreams are made of. But mostly the show eschewed big explosions for smaller, more intense interrogation scenes. Jack’s function as in-house Jack Bauer came to light this week which, along with his possible previous investigation by the FBI (Case 332L), gives yet more shading to Spy Daddy’s true leanings.
The lack of big action for a majority of the hour did, however, lead to make the final fireball that much more potent. Previous episodes have left us wondering how Sydney would get out of the situation she was in. This one leaves us wondering how Sydney will mentally cope with what she couldn’t prevent. While Alias will return to its more usual cliffhangers in episodes to come, it’s good to see them show that Syd’s life as a double agent won’t simply be threading the needle each week. There are consequences to her actions, even if she herself escapes them directly. Danny was only the first to die for her role in this dangerous world. But he won’t be the last. And he certainly may not be the only one close to her that has to suffer.
- Loved Syd and Anna both feverishly memorizing the binary code as acid eats away at the page. Seems like a trick that a thirty-minute infomercial for “Increasing Your Memory” would stage. But, you know, in a good way.
- Syd’s attempts to reclaim the “Golden Sun” polymer disc from the Spanish church was fifty percent Tomb Raider, fifty percent Assassin’s Creed. I’m playing Assassin’s Creed II while rewatching Alias, and it’s pretty clear that this show’s influence goes beyond television into other pop culture mediums as well.
- It’s only the first quarter of the first season, and Marshall’s tech speeches are already getting annoying.
- It’s literally impossible now to hear Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” and not see images of abused puppies pop into my mind.
- One of the all-time great shots in Alias history lies in "A Broken Heart": Syd in the foreground while the Ferris wheel behind her pulses like the synapses in her brain firing uncontrollably. Just a masterful piece of composition there.
- Not sure if “Doppelgänger” meant to evoke Luke Skywalker falling down the shaft near the end of The Empire Strikes Back when Syd lept down the shaft to avoid Sawari’s men, but Lord, it sure seems like it.
- I was going to mention Francie pouting over Charlie at their Halloween party, but I suddenly had ANYTHING BETTER TO DO.
- Earth-J.J., rearing its head again: Syd dresses up as Alice for the Halloween party. And Lord knows Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland had a SLIGHT presence in Lost.
- Another fun costume moment for Syd: Her looking like a sexy version of Mike Myers’ Dieter upon arriving at Hensel Corporation.
- Fun moments in cinematography: the camera pulling back to follow Syd and Schiller escaping, only to reveal a body on the floor after they have to step over it. A neat trick, given the smooth camera movement.
- “Cracked. Access granted. No restrictions.” Oh, you silly early 21st-century decryption windows, you.
- Syd’s explanation to Schiller about the nature of her work is yet another way for Alias to try and give a quick summary to newbies about the show’s premise. As I recall, this technique doesn’t end anytime soon.
- “It’s real. And it’s a hunt.”
- “We have to be wildly, crazy careful here.”
- “Actually, Emily’s a bit under the weather. But thanks for asking.”
- “No, you wait until he’s a block away.” “Look at you, getting into it.”
- “That was Sydney. You’re different when you talk to Sydney.”
- “It’s only a matter of time before I find out the truth.”
- “You thought I was married this whole time?”
- “I’m going shopping!”
- “He wanted to charge me fifty dollars. It’s too much.”
- “You just threw your beeper in the Pacific.”
- “I just punched Dhiren Patel in the face. I WORSHIP this man.”
- “Maybe he’s here to talk to you about the humiliating kiss.” “Stop calling it that.”
- “Don’t deny it. Don’t wait. Don’t piss me off.”
- “Paul, I have to hurt you."
- Next week: I'll be covering "Reckoning" and "Color Blind," the 6th and 7th episodes in this season.
- Semi-spoilers for veterans in this bullet: Sloane’s line about his wife in “A Broken Heart” is both amusing (in that he can switch gears so effectively mid-briefing), but also representative of yet another broken heart at this stage of the game. Nicely layered in there by the show. Also, all the stuff related to biological warfare? That sure comes up later down the line, albeit often in terrible fashion. And, naturally, Syd’s instincts about Dixon come back around down in due time.